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Return to Sender: Commissioners Mail Holiday Greetings on Your Dime

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Every year, they arrive punctually on the same festive stationary, and every year, they're tossed out faster than stale fruitcake. Well, dear reader, by throwing out your commissioner's holiday newsletter, you're trashing your own cash.

Each newsletter costs the county 47 cents to produce, typeset, print, post, and mail. With nearly 300,000 of them sent in the past two years, that's about $136,000 in taxpayer-paid glorified holiday cards.

And that total was rung up by only three of the 13 commissioners. Although colleagues conscious of last year's budget crisis have turned to the web, Javier "Space Cowboy" Souto, Dorrin Rolle, and jetsetter Natacha Seijas still use the old-faithful, direct-mail postcard to toot their own horns to constituents too poor or feeble to get online.

Souto's Christmassy newsletter is his idea of a snail-mail bear hug. He opens with a Mister Rogers-like "Dear Neighbor" and includes a family portrait. Inside the glossy seven-page greeting is a bulleted list of sidewalks that got makeovers and intersections with new traffic lights.

Despite a tighter-than-ever $829,000 budget used to pay staff and office expenses, Souto dished out $44,000 last year to mail some 91,000 newsletters. It's a tradition he has maintained for 16 years as a county commissioner, says spokesman Bernardo Escobar.

"It's called a democracy," Escobar says. "You can't serve the people unless you inform them what you're doing within the county. Just like a corporation, we're required to provide an annual report."

That memo hasn't reached the other commissioners or Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who has been communicating with voters exclusively online since at least 2005, says Owen Torres, a county spokesman.

And Commissioner Joe Martinez, whose district is unincorporated and larger than Souto's, uses his email database and website to  keep voters informed. "Since the county's budget was slashed, everybody got cut," says Lorena Guerra, a spokeswoman for Martinez. "We have a very limited budget. There's really no funding" for the newsletters.

For Philip Goldin, who lives in Souto's district, the commish is becoming like that Facebook friend who can't quit updating.

"When I get the newsletters, I just throw them away," the Westchester resident says. "It seems to me that when so many government services are being cut, a slick publication like this is not needed. I do not know of anyone who bothers to read it."

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